Interview: Why did so many Kurds go to Belarus?

Temporary protection will be provided to persons displaced from Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion on 24 February. [Stringer/EPA/EFE]

Political disillusionment, lack of economic opportunities and dreams of a better life are reasons why many asylum seekers that enter Lithuania from Belarus originate from Iraqi Kurdistan, a region considered one of the wealthiest and most stable in the region.

Journalist Benas Gerdžiūnas from LRT.LT took an in-depth look at the phenomenon and asked the relevant questions to Mera Jasm Bakr, an Iraqi Kurd himself, studying irregular migration patterns, and a non-resident fellow at the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin.

According to Bakr, the current fourth wave of Kurdish migration started in 2014, which followed the flows of refugees caused by the deadly campaigns of Saddam Hussein, a civil war, and then the US-led war.

The scale of migration has been fluctuating, but in his words, now “they found Belarus”. Out of 4,326 asylum seekers that entered Lithuania via Belarus this year, 2,858 are Iraqi nationals.

Iraq, including Kurdistan, has a very young population which has almost doubled from around 25 million in 2003 at the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime to 40 million today. Tens of thousands of people graduate from universities but cannot find a job.

Moreover, according to Bakr, the Kurds are disgusted with politics. Iraqi Kurdistan is dominated by two parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), headed by the Barzani family and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by the Talabanis family. These political forces are primarily successful at enriching themselves, he added.

In 2009, the Gorran (Change) Movement was formed by one of the top charismatic Kurdish leaders, Nawshirwan Mustafa. In the 2014 elections, they got almost 500,000 votes, almost unseating the Barzanis and Talabanis. This opposition movement was a sign of hope for the people and shock for the two main parties.

However, Gorran also turned out to be a disappointment after joining the government in 2018. Many of its leaders have been “literally bought by the KDP”, Bakr says, adding that the party could no longer mobilise the people. In the last election, they got zero seats, creating a situation where many people lost hope of political change.

In this context, another popular opposition party, the New Generation Movement, which Bakr called “crazily populist”, has one of the most popular TV channels, the NRT. Those who are against the two ruling parties usually watch this channel, which focuses on how corrupt the other parties are and how bad the situation is.

They also use the channel to paint a picture of a European utopia where life is good, people are respected, and disabled people can get assistance.

“Their role is not to say ‘go to Belarus or Europe’. But they do fuel people’s grievances and motivate them to go to Europe”, Bakr said.

According to Bakr, since 2014, Kurds have gone to Europe via Turkey, but it was hazardous. Families don’t want to take the Mediterranean route because it is dangerous, so some look at getting a Belarusian visa.

Initially, it was tough to receive such a visa as they were issued on a small scale, but suddenly and recently, the Belarusian government made the process very easy.

The tourist package price was very low  in May 2021, ranging between $700–800 and did not involve smugglers.

“It was crazy; everyone was getting this package, everyone was trying to go”, Bakr said.

“In October, all of a sudden, thousands of people left. Everyone said if it’s that easy, let’s do it. Some people were very cautious but eventually found out how easy [it was via social media]. The price of the [official tourist] package increased from $1,000 to over $4000, says Bakr.

He explains that in Kurdistan, there are plenty of travel agencies, as people don’t book their flights online. Only very few people have bank cards, and everything is done by travel agencies, which are very active on social media.

He said that when the EU started to pressure Iraq’s government, many travel companies deleted all their social media posts, removing any evidence of involvement.

Travel companies admit that maybe they encourage people to emigrate, but the whole process was technically legal. They send the clients’ passports to Turkey, get the visas, book flights and hotels.

Bakr says he interviewed a person with a travel agency in Sulaymaniyah [In Iraqi Kurdistan]. He noted that some travel agencies have representatives in Ankara, and these people go to the Belarusian embassy and get the clients’ visas.

“They don’t reveal their identity. And some people have made [a lot] of money, I was told”, Bakr said.

According to him, internationally, the KRG government is really embarrassed by the migration crisis it did not control.

In his words, it’s ironic that the EU is only blaming Lukashenko.

“Why in the first place, so many Kurds in Iraq are leaving,” he asked, adding, “If there was a good government [in Iraq], Lukashenko could not deceive people. So why doesn’t [the EU] work on root causes?”

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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